Marc Shoul gives Lauren Clifford-Holmes the lowdown on the creative process behind Flatlands and what he wants people to take from it.
Photographer Marc Shoul set out to document life in Johannesburg’s inner city for his Flatlands collection. What he found was a melting pot of cultures and energy unique to the city. We speak to him about his experiences and what he hopes people will take away from his work.
What did the Flatlands project set out to achieve?
People often think it is a political piece, but it’s far from that. It is rather a documentary of space and time within the Jo’burg CBD. I see inner-city Jo’burg as a microcosmic version of what South Africa is right now, encapsulating the transition the country is going through, as well as projecting what it could become. Also, I was tired of hearing how dangerous this city is, how white people haven’t been there in the past 10 or 15 years. My thinking was that where there’s bad, there’s got to be equal amounts of good, if not more. I went out to find that.
How did you approach the work? Merely as an observer?
Well, my work is largely based on social issues. I wanted to find out what sort of lifestyle these people are living, I wanted to see how this melting pot of cultures lives in this highly dense area. I found so many different stories, from kids bunking school and going to the movies to labourers sleeping in cinemas at night because they had missed the last bus and had a warm place to sleep after paying just R15 or R20 to see a movie. I witnessed this beautiful cross-section and melting pot of culture and people and energy, which is just so contagious. Our country changes on a daily basis, an hourly basis, even. To see the contrasts and shifts reflected in these blocks of flats was striking. It was that energy I was looking for. I was looking for love, looking for how people are getting on with their lives, how they come to South Africa and Jo’burg, as I did, looking for their pile of gold. When you really start digging, though, you discover that there’s a lot more to the city than just that job-related drive and purpose.
Did you find harmony among all these different cultures and nations living side by side?
In reality there will be issues in any situation where you have a lot of different families living in one flat, where the only room partition is often a piece of plastic or a blanket. People don’t have that privacy that many would believe is one’s common right. Living in very small spaces, there’s bound to be arguments and things going missing, because doors are open. Kids are in and out of flats and I think that a lot of our population may not realise that behind the facades of the electric fences and barbed-wire fences, there are communities that are existing in there and trying to make a life for themselves. But different cultures do seem to come together — you’ve got Congolese, Zimbabweans, the whole lot, it’s just fantastic. I see the CBD as an example of the type of country South Africa could become.
So having experienced the inner city over the years shooting this project, is it the South Africa you’d like us to become?
Yes and no. I’d like to live in Johannesburg with less fear, although that is part of the momentum of Jo’burg. Town is fantastic; I just wish it was more accessible to those who fear it from the outside. The sense of community, the strong visible cultures, the way there [is everything from] bars to churches that are open all hours is brilliant. There is a life there, there is a pulse that exists in the CBD that doesn’t exist in the suburbs. It’s completely divorced from the suburbs. I mean I live in Killarney, which is only a kilometre and a half from Hillbrow, but the temperature there is completely different.
Are there any specific images or stories that stood out for you?
The Mexican Sports Bar is one such series. It documents this brothel and strip club, a sort of haven for the underworld. I got permission from the manager to shoot an evening there. Before the evening kicked off he got on to stage to tell everyone that he knew this mlungu, this white man, taking photos and that if I misrepresented them, they’d kill me. It’s all tongue-in-cheek and I’m not going to misrepresent him because that’s not what I’m about. One of the strongest photos of the series is of Brenda dancing on the dirty floor. Another one is Gladys dancing next to a barrier with a patron’s hand coming out of nowhere, the darkness, groping her. It was a very sad place. The girls are young. It’s a means to an end for a lot of them. They are underneath somebody’s thumb. It’s very sad circumstances that they’re in.
So how do you reconcile those sad, dark stories, with still quite a positive sense of what you experienced and witnessed overall?
It is important to show both sides of the coin — the sad and the happy, the good and the bad. For instance, another essential image of the series is the SAB fountain swimmers, which depicts three naked children swimming in the museum of beer’s fountain, which belongs to the breweries in Newtown, on a Sunday morning. The mere fact that they are naked and swimming carefree in a corporate fountain just shows how people in the inner city have adapted the surroundings to their needs and wants and lifestyles. I think that image is a true reflection of the current state of town, showing how this space has become the people’s. Another interesting image is of two cops on a film set. And a lot of people who haven’t read the byline think it was shot in the 1960s. But really it shows the circle that South Africa has made. Now you have white guys acting as cops in old uniforms on TV series. So the circle keeps rolling and the contrast within this area is a true reflection of where South Africa is.
What would you like people to take from this series?
I would really like people to experience and witness this as a documentary of a specific time and place. I want people to be able to see that this area is actually functional in its own dysfunctional way, that there is a light side of life within this area and it’s not all dark and gloomy. I believe the vibrancy and energy of the area is something that should be experienced by everybody in our country.